Life's no tea party!

Survival of the rare - and irresistibly cute - dormouse depends not only on halting destruction of woodland habitats but on actively managing them in the right way, as Gary Pilkington explains.

I would imagine that the only contact you've ever had with one of Bntain's rarest mammals is through reading Alice in Wonderland: "The dormouse is asleep again." says the Mad Hatter at the infamous tea party. and he pours a little hot tea upon its nose.

Any child reading this tale in the mid - 19th century would have been very familiar with. and probably quite knowledgeable about. the dormouse. At that time. with more suitable habitat existing than at present. it would have been a common animal in the countryside and many were kept as pets by those children whose fathers, for example. worked in the local woodlands and who had happened to have disturbed one whilst hedge laying or coppicing. Unfortunately. here at the end of the 20th century. the dormouse is so rare that it has been afforded protection by the Government. In 1992 English Nature added the dormouse to its "Species Recovery Programme" in order to make the public and owners of woodland more aware of the threats to this our most attractive small mammal.

The dormouse's name comes from the French (dormir to sleep) and it is recognised by its thick, furry tail. large black eyes and sandy-coloured fur. It is neither a mouse - belonging to a family of its own - nor does it live in doors, and it is not to be mistaken for the "edible" or "fat" dormouse which was introduced into Britain in 1902 in an area around the Chilterns and which can be a serious pest. Our native "common" dormouse is quite small, with an average weight of 15-20 grams - the same as two £1 coins.

It is predominantly nocturnal, spending much of the day asleep in a nest woven from leaves and honeysuckle bark, situated in a tree hole or amongst dense shrubs. In autumn it begins to eat a great deal of food so as to double its weight. and at the onset of colder weather it descends to the ground builds another nest in a depression under the leaves or moss, and begins hibernation During this time the animal lives on the stored fat built up and remains in this state for about five or six months , until the following spring All in all, it spends about three quarters of its life asleep!

Dormice prefer the woodland edge with a wide range of shrubs and trees, especially small sections of old, coppiced hazel cut in a long rotation of around 12 to 15 years. This type of habitat best provides their favoured diet: berries, nectar, insects, nuts. tiowers and catkins. Hedgerows can be good habitats too. especially if they are left for a number of seasons to grow and mature. In effect, they are "linear" woodlands, offering not only a place to live and breed but also a means of travel from one wood to another. Unfortunately, most hedgerows, if they haven't been removed. are cut by machine every season in an unsympathetic manner, often at the wrong time of year, when the dormice - and many bird species - are nesting.

During the warmer months the dormouse leaves its nest about an hour after sunset looking for food, rarely, if ever, descending to the ground to do so, and usually staying within 50 metres. The first litter of young ones usually appears about the middle of June, but most are born in August time and live for up to five years - much longer than other rodents of a similar size.

There seems to be many reasons for the decline in dormouse populations, but the loss and mismanagement of suitable habitat, fragmentation of smaller woods and the grubbing out of hedgerows are the main factors. our climate adds to the overall problem. as dormice prefer a clear distinction between seasons. Mild winters cause hibernation to be interrupted and the animal loses energy, while cool summers mean that less food is available at critical times.
Illustration and photo by courtesy English Nature
The dormouse is much more than just a soft, cuddly animal which, because of the way it looks, deserves to be saved. This is not a sentimental issue - it's more than that, because its relatively rapid decline seems to me to symbolise everything that has gone wmng with the overall (mis)management of our countryside over the past couple of decades.

Gary Pilkington

Garv Pilkiuxton is Reserve Manager of the Welcombe and Marsland Nature Reserve, near Morwenstow, owned by our national organisation. His specialist interests include butterflies as well as dormice, and he is Chairman of Cornwall Butterfly Conservation.
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